Italy Chopin, Tchaikovsky, Debussy, Beethoven. Alexander Ullman (piano) Recital of the Keyboard Charitable Trust at the Teatro Ghione, Rome. 18.01.2015(JB)
Alexander Ullman, born twenty-three years ago in London, has been doing some serious thinking about thought: musical thought, in this instance. Whatever his art, the artist’s first connection is always with himself. And in particular, those parts of himself that he doesn’t yet know. Exploration and self-discovery is the name of the game. I’ve written elsewhere, how advanced Ullman is along this path. On this road is the key to communication –the artist’s other life-line. But –fingers crossed!- the enriching self-discovery leads to the discovery of others: all those composers throughout musical history in this case. With encouragement and guidance it bursts outside matters musical to something like Stephen Hawkins’s Theory of Everything. God Himself is contained within this vitality. Giordiano Bruno thought so long before Professor Hawkins started his search. [ The best translation of Bruno’s Latin words is ,God is a circle whose circumference is found everywhere.] The Vatican burned Bruno as a heretic when he refused to recant. That is rather a good instance of how irresponsible individuals can become when they act as a committee.
Most readers of this note will be aware of music’s being plugged in to the Universal Sense. The point to be made here is the Ullman impressively fine tuning of his plug-ins.
Take Beethoven. More than one contemporary of Beethoven is on record saying that the Maestro was usually scowling, even when he was telling you a joke. That is clearly audible in the presto finale of the sonata in F, Op10 no 2. A musical joke, yes, but the scowl is there too –emphatically so; it’s not that the maestro is just po-faced. Ullman enters precisely into the niche of this nuance. His identification with the composer is total: this performer sounds as though he has become the composer. In place of the slow movement Beethoven gives us an allegretto; that calls for charm –not usually a Beethoven quality, but again, it’s charm on Beethoven’s own terms. Unsurprisingly these are Ullman terms too: the pianist is so convincing he has become the composer. There is one unified voice involved in this delivery.
Debussy requires his pianist to use the instrument as an artist’s palette for his three Prints (Estampes in French). The Ullman fingers mix these colours with daring, original, delicacy. At the same time, the boy has no fear of dirtying his fingers; come to think of it, he positively wallows in the colour mixing coming out of the instrument: the hollow echo effect of the pentatonic Pagodes, (never was the right foot pedal so niftily in the service of a composer), the daring inroads to the very soul of Spain in La Soirée Dans Grenade and for my own favourite –there was a sense of the audience reaching for their umbrellas for Jardins Sous la Pluie.
A word here about the audience. It was small, some sixty in number. But it was also a discriminating audience, more to be understood by the depths of its silences during and between the pieces. Those depths reached unfathomable zones, taking care not to breath sometimes , so as to not break the spell.
Tchaikovsky’s piano music is often tainted with his own brand of pathos. April, subtitled Snowdrops (from the Twelve Months Suite Op 37a) wafts delicately across the keyboard under the Ullman fingers while the final movement –Theme and Variations from Op 19 no 6 is a more virtuoso glitter with some unexpected and effective, hushed oases.
The second part of the recital was all Chopin. First, the Scherzo no 2 in B flat minor, Op 31. An arresting opening led to a surprisingly fluffed coda. Loss of concentration? Chopin’s Mazurkas have very little in common with the Polish folk-dance of that name. Yes, the repeated, hypnotic rhythms are often present –played with a glowing cleanness in the Ullman performance But there are also meditative episodes too, offered here with a charming, warm, how-about-that quasi irony. Chopin may have been surprised by this cheeky approach. But arguably, also approving.
John Ogden used to say that the Chopin Fourth Ballade is far and away the most difficult piece of piano music ever written. It doesn’t sound so in the Ullman performance. He has done with it what he does with every other piece: made it his own. Yet this is quintessentially Chopin’s show: Ullman offering himself up in an immolation of the complexities of Chopin emotion. The ovation was well earned.
The musical turbulence was calmed with an encore of Chopin’s Nocturne Op55 no2 in E flat. But still the audience wanted more. This came in a very sparkling account of the study on the black keys. And since that wasn’t enough, Alex appeared with an announcement that his final offering would be in memory of a favourite Rome dog who had just died. The Chopin funeral march was never so aptly solemn. It felt very much like the high priest giving his benediction to his congregation.